The human mind likes to work in absolutes. The cliché of black and white thinking can be seen everywhere. Health and fitness is no different. There are endless statements from people on all sides with claims of either good or bad things in relation to health and fitness. The reality is that like most things in life, health and fitness and most things associated with it exist on a continuum.
This continuum is what makes things so confusing. One person said salt is bad and another said salt is good, who do you trust and what health decision do you make? Often there is so much information out there now that people struggle to decipher the reality from the endless black and white.
The grey area that exists with health and fitness can be represented by the inverted U curve pictured above. It is a very simple graphical representation used in many fields of study. Essentially it is showing that not enough of something will produce no results, or in the case of fitness, possible negative health outcomes. It also shows that as you do more of something, like exercise you will get more benefit from it. This benefit reaches a point, the optimal level and any extra past this point starts to have the same effect as too little.
OK a basic example to illustrate this. Doing zero hours of exercise is known and proven to be unhealthy in the short and long term. Doing 5-10 hours of moderate activity per week is known to promote good health. If you start to do well beyond 20 hours of intense exercise each week you are likely to start going down the other side of the curve and have negative health outcomes as a result of TOO MUCH exercise.
This is one area that the majority of people fall far to the left of the curve. Even regular exercisers are often not doing enough to go beyond the curve. To go too far with exercise most people will need to be doing far more than average. If you are doing many hours of very high intensity each week you are likely to be doing more harm than good. If you are doing less than 5 hours of exercise you are probably in the same position.
There are probably more examples of this U curve in nutrition than in any other health aspect. If you find any health related issue you will find plenty of websites stating support for an extreme version of both sides of any argument. Whilst some nutritional statements deserve their extreme nature, such as trans-fat being inherently unhealthy, most nutrition related statements need to be looked at with care.
The low fat movement came along in the 70s and 80s and told us fat was making us fat and fat intake dropped dramatically over the years. The population continued to become more obese and so now we have the low carb epidemic and carbs are now said to be the number one reason people are becoming fat. The reality is we need both carbs and fats in our diets. Moderate intake of both of these macro-nutrients will have better health outcomes than trying to entirely eliminate either of them from your diet.
Stress is where the origin of this curve as a representation came from. Too little stress means we lack motivation to complete a task. Too much stress and we are overloaded. We need just enough stress to work at our optimum level. Other parts of our mental health are very similar to this. Basically extremes on either end are not a good way to be in. Being too excited and charged up such as being manic can be equally damaging to our productivity and motivations as not being happy enough.
Working out where the middle of the curve is
The optimal level of most health topics is difficult to work out. Working out what is optimal is a time consuming process that will be very individual. The best way to try and work this out is by tracking yourself over time as mentioned in my previous article here. This article talks about the importance of individualization in health and fitness. The middle of the curve is going to be different for each person. Over time you can see how your body responds to different intakes and work out what is optimal for you.
Let's look at a very basic example. When you do 1 run a week you do not improve but 5 runs tires you out too much, so your optimal level is probably around 3 runs per week. Another basic example from nutrition. When you eat 100grams of carbs per day you find you are sluggish and unable to perform your workouts. When you have 400grams per day you gain weight very quickly. The middle of the curve is going to be between 200-300grams per day. This same approach can be applied to any aspect of your health but takes time and effort to monitor it.
Stay away from the extreme ends
The easiest way to try and stay within healthy ranges is to avoid the extremes. As an example, both low salt and high salt can be harmful. So try to avoid both of these extremes. Don’t excessively limit salt intake and don’t eat too much salt. This way you are going to fall much closer to the middle of the spectrum. This can be applied to any aspect of your health. If you avoid extremes you are going to avoid the worst outcomes associated with them.
The U curve is something present in many aspects of our lives. Striving to be optimal in your health will give you a better health outcome than just going along at the extreme ends. Black and white thinking will often result in a suboptimal state of health and in some cases can be an unhealthy way to live. This optimal level is not a hard and fast rule and will change for everybody over time.
How do you strive for optimal health?